Breaking Down Xavier della Gatta's Battle of Paoli Painting

Breaking Down Xavier della Gatta's Battle of Paoli Painting

November 18, 2019

For the past 60 years, the image shown below has puzzled historians. Created by Italian artist Xavier della Gatta in 1782, the painting vividly and accurately depicts the 1777 Battle of Paoli, part of the Philadelphia Campaign of the American Revolutionary War. Della Gatta, however, never set foot in America. Why did Xavier della Gatta choose to paint this battle and how was he able to depict it so accurately? Careful detective work has revealed answers in the life of Richard St. George, who fought with the British Army at the battle. St. George also provided the eyewitness details for della Gatta's Battle of Germantown painting.

Richard St. George remembered Paoli as a “nocturnal bloody scene” and helped create the detailed painting of the battle. The painting, which is part of the Museum's collection and on display in the Museum's special exhibition Cost of Revolution: The Life and Death of an Irish Soldier through March 17, merges different moments from the battle into one action-packed view. It provides a rare, eyewitness glimpse into the violence of the Revolutionary War.

Battle of Paoli by Xavier della Gatta

1. British Light Dragoons

These four British soldiers on horseback are members of the 16th Light Dragoons. They used their long steel sabers to devastating effect at Paoli. The dragoon on the right is raising his saber to cut down a Pennsylvania soldier.

2. Lieutenant Martin Hunter

Martin Hunter, St. George’s friend, is wrapping his wounded hand with a bandage. In his memoir, Hunter recalled the close combat at Paoli: “I received a shot in my right hand soon after we entered the camp. I saw the fellow present at me, and was running up to him when he fired. He was immediately put to death.”

3. Ferguson’s Riflemen

Wearing green coats and carrying their breechloading rifles with 25-inch long bayonets, a group of Captain Patrick Ferguson’s riflemen helped to lead the attack at Paoli.

4. Captain William Wolfe

Captain William Wolfe, the Irish commander of the 40th Regiment’s light company, died leading his troops at Paoli. He was remembered as “a most brave and attentive officer.”

5. Pennsylvania Troops

Brigadier General Anthony Wayne’s troops scrambled to defend their camp at Paoli. The Pennsylvanians fired their muskets, which made it easier for the British to find and attack them in the dark. Wayne withdrew his troops in a fighting retreat to save them from total defeat. The Battle of Paoli became known as the “Paoli Massacre” or “Wayne’s Affair.”

6. Brush Huts

Instead of tents, Wayne’s troops constructed brush huts, also called “wigwams” or “booths,“ in their camp along a woodline (which still exists today, right). These huts provided some protection from the wind and rain. Both Washington’s and Howe’s armies built temporary brush hut camps during the Philadelphia Campaign when baggage wagons carrying tents were not close by.

7. Artist’s Signature

Italian artist Xavier della Gatta signed and dated his painting in the bottom right corner: “Xav d Gatta 1782.” Richard St. George traveled to Italy after his wartime service and provided Xavier della Gatta with the eyewitness testimony needed to create this painting. Della Gatta also painted the Battle of Germantown.

Learn more about Xavier della Gatta's Battle of Paoli painting in our collection as well as his Battle of Germantown painting that he produced with the help of Richard St. George. Explore more about Richard St. George and his work with Italian artist Xavier della Gatta in the Museum's special exhibition Cost of Revolution: The Life and Death of an Irish Soldier, open through March 17, 2020. Tickets are on sale now!

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